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Wednesday 30 September 2009

Leon Cazador, private investigator in Spain

I've just completed my 21st short story featuring this guy; it's a story I've been wanting to write for a couple of years but didn't have an angle on... The previous Leon Cazador story was written about 18 months ago and it was great to get reacquainted.

Nineteen of his stories have been published commercially and a couple earned prizes in competitions. At present I'm going through the collection and beefing up the stories for a collection; most commercial word counts don't allow for much in the way of atmosphere, character description and detail that provides additional realism; I'm hoping that my editing can enhance the existing stories. The collection is tentatively called Spanish Eye. I expect I'll be writing another four or five stories to get to an appropriate wordcount. Here's the Introduction to the Collection:


In the middle of 2005, I received a telephone call from a Spanish private investigator, Leon Cazador. He’d heard of my efforts with a novel, Pain Wears No Mask, and wanted me to write about some of his cases in a similar vein – first person narrative. I’ve lost count of the number of approaches I’ve had from people wanting me to ghost write their autobiographies; it’s gratifying but any such venture entails many months of intense work and distracts me from other planned projects. I was inclined to turn down Señor Cazador, until he said, ‘I thought you captured the voice of Sister Rose perfectly. I feel you could do it for me, too.’ Suitably flattered, I arranged a meeting. I found that he was a fascinating raconteur and, more importantly, he had a good story to tell. As a result, I began writing Leon Cazador short stories, all of which seem to have been well received.

For thousands of years, evildoers conducted their business during the dark hours. Night offered concealment. The innocent and god-fearing slept in their beds while unsavoury characters went about their nefarious business under the cloak of darkness. But in recent memory all that seems to have changed. Now, muggers are quite blatant, attacking their victims in broad daylight. Burglars boldly break in during the day when the house owners are out at work. The law’s sanctions against criminals no longer appear to be a deterrent.

Darkness not only obliterates light, it permeates the mind and soul too. Is this an enlightened society we’re living in or one that’s about to implode? I don’t know, but I do feel that the silent majority will only stand for so much and when that limit is reached they will turn like the proverbial worm and rebel. Until that time, the world needs brave souls like Leon Cazador who is not afraid to bring the ungodly to justice and so help, in his own words, ‘to hold back the encroaching night of unreason.’

‘My allegiance is split because I’m half-English and half-Spanish,’ he says. ‘Mother had a whirlwind romance with a Spanish waiter but, happily, it didn’t end when the holiday was over. The waiter pursued her to England and they were married.’

Leon was born in Spain and has a married sister, Pilar, and an older brother, Juan, who is an officer in the Guardia Civil. Leon Cazador sometimes operates in disguise under several aliases, among them Carlos Ortiz Santos, his little tribute to the fabled fictional character Simon Templar.

As a consequence of dealing with the authorities and criminals, Leon has observed in his two home countries the gradual deterioration of effective law enforcement and the disintegration of respect.

At our first meeting, he said, ‘When I was growing up in England, I never imagined there would be no-go areas in those great cities, places where the shadow of light falls on streets and minds. Now, at weekends, some sections of many towns seem to be under siege.’

Now that he has returned to live in Spain, he finds that it is not so bad here, though he admits that he has seen many changes over the last thirty years, most of them good, yet some to be deplored. ‘It is heartening to see that family cohesion is still strong in most areas; but even that age-old stability is under threat. Yet some urbanizaciones more resemble towns on the frontier of the Old West, where mayors can be bought, where lawlessness is endemic and civilised behaviour has barely a foothold. Even so, most nights you can walk the streets and feel safe here in Spain.’

Leon has led an interesting life. As Spain’s conscription didn’t cease until 2001, he decided to jump rather than be pushed and joined the Army, graduating as an Artillery Lieutenant. About a year later, he joined the Spanish Foreign Legion’s Special Operations Company (Bandera de operaciones especiales de la legión) and was trained in the United States at Fort Bragg, where he built up his considerable knowledge about clandestine activities and weapons. Some months afterwards, he was recruited into the CESID (Centro Superior de Informacion de la Defensa), which later became the CNI (Centro Nacional de Inteligencia). Unlike most western democracies, Spain runs a single intelligence organization to handle both domestic and foreign risks.

He is one of those fortunate individuals who is capable of learning a foreign language with ease: he grew up bilingual, speaking English and Spanish, and soon learned Portuguese, French, Arabic, Chinese and Japanese. Part of his intelligence gathering entailed his transfer to the Spanish Embassy in Washington, DC. Here, he met several useful contacts in the intelligence community and at the close of the Soviet occupation he embarked on a number of secret missions to Afghanistan with CIA operatives. By the time that the Soviet withdrawal was a reality, Leon was transferred to the Spanish Embassy in Tokyo, where he liaised with both intelligence and police organizations. Secret work followed in China, the Gulf and Yugoslavia.

In 1987, Leon was attached to a secret section of MI6 to assist operatives in Colombia. Although he has been decorated four times in theatres of conflict, reports suggest his bravery justifies at least another four medals.

A year after witnessing the atrocity of the Twin Towers while stationed with the United Nations, he returned to civilian life and set up a private investigation firm. During periods of leave and while stationed in Spain, he had established a network of contacts in law enforcement, notably the Guardia Civil. One of his early cases resulted in him becoming financially set up for life, so that now he conducts his crusade against villains of all shades, and in the process attempts to save the unwary from the clutches of conmen, rogues and crooks.

These then are some of Leon Cazador’s cases, in his own words.

Nik Morton, Alicante, Spain

The beginning of the latest story goes something like this:


Fireworks in daytime are not particularly spectacular, but that doesn’t deter my Spanish compatriots from setting them off. The clear blue sky was momentarily sprayed with silver and red stars as the single rocket exploded above the town square. Minutes afterwards, a profusion of colours darted above our heads, but this display wasn’t the transient starburst of another firework. The palette that soared in the sky came from garishly painted pigeons released from patios, balconies, rooftops and gardens. In the next few minutes the number of male birds increased to perhaps seventy.

‘My prize bird has been stolen!’ a man shouted from a balcony on the opposite side of the street. He gestured at us and added, ‘Pilar, tell your brother I need his help!’

Sunday 27 September 2009

Book of the Film: The Shawshank Redemption

Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption is one of four novellas in the book Different Seasons by Stephen King, published in 1982. The film was released twelve years later. When I was studying scriptwriting, I was bowled over by the sheer perfection of Frank Darabont’s script, from the brilliant opening sequence through to the wonderfully emotional end. Indeed, while the novella is a virtuoso performance, King getting into the skin of the narrator ‘Red’, the movie surpasses the book in its storytelling power and characterisation. That doesn’t take away anything from the original source, however: the book deserves to be read and certain passages will move most readers, even when they know the story behind the Rita Hayworth poster…

I’m not a fan of prison movies and it was quite a while before I got round to watching the film. And I read the novella much later. As a writer myself, I can see that King cleverly has his cake and eats it too. Although the story is told in the first person, we see a lot of events where Red was not a participant or observer, thanks to the canny comment that the prison grapevine provided him with all the salient details.

As with a number of films, several characters are blended together, and successfully so. The fates of Tommy Williams and Brooks Hatlen are different in the book. The book’s ending shows merely the promise of what is actually revealed in the film.

Just in case some readers haven’t seen the film, the story goes something like this: In 1947, Andy Dufresne was charged and sentenced for murdering his wife and her lover. He never contested the prosecution’s facts. Andy became a new inmate in the Shawshank facility and was taken under the wing of Red, the prison fixer who could get almost anything smuggled in – except women, drugs and guns.

The prison regime was brutal and unpleasant, with the warden and his men wangling deals to feather their own pockets at the expense of the cons. As if that wasn’t bad enough, a gang of so-called ‘sisters’ who were brutish rapists targeted Andy, and though he fought back, he suffered many defeats and humiliations. But they never broke his spirit or dented his hope in one day walking out of the prison. Red admired Andy and they became firm friends.

Red the narrator is humorous, worldly wise and very observant, and totally believable in King’s hands. In the book’s Afterword, King states that his prose style is ‘fairly plain, not very literary, and sometimes downright clumsy.’ He considers his work to be the ‘literary equivalent of a Big Mac and a large fries from McDonald’s.’ I’m sure that many of his critics would agree with him. And yet, he taps into the hearts and minds of thousands of readers with that same prose. As he writes at the beginning of the book, ‘It is the tale, not he who tells it.’ And the story is all – comprising vivid characters, a fraught situation, raw emotion and the small guy hoping and working to beat the odds. That comes through in the book.

So, if you’ve seen the film but haven’t read the book, make that journey. You’ll be rewarded by finding a lot of nuggets plucked by Darabont to enliven his masterpiece film, and you’ll come away knowing that the naysaying critics of Stephen King are so wrong.

Sunday 13 September 2009

Book review: Mission by Philip Spires

MISSION, Philip Spires, Libros International, 428pp

If you enjoyed Paul Scott’s The Raj Quartet, I suspect that you’ll like this book too. The Jewel in the Crown was about a lot of things, but essentially a rape and how that affects a number of interlinked individuals. Mission covers a great deal in 1970s Kenya, but is essentially about a death and how the lives of several people are entwined. The writing style is similar, too. Another author Spires favourably reminds me of is Louis Bromfield, especially his classic The Rains Came.

The man killed is Munyasya, a retired army officer who devoted his life to his colonial masters. The book is divided into five sections, related from the viewpoints of Michael, Mulonzya, Janet, Boniface and Munyasya. Time shifts from the instant of the death to the past and also forward to the present, showing the incident’s repercussions. As Michael says, some thirty years later, ‘Sometimes things happen to you in life which are so momentous, so mind-blowing, that you never forget them. You live with them forever, vivid and clear in your mind. It’s as if you can relive them moment-by-moment.’

We begin with the death. Father Michael, a mission priest, accidentally drives his vehicle over the ageing Munyasa, who is a derelict and a drunk. Yet the old man’s demise galvanizes the local politician James Mulonzya into making political capital from the tragedy. Father Michael’s blooding occurred earlier in Biafra, and his quite shocking memories are powerfully described. Now, officiating in the village of Migwani, he strives to do good and has a dedicated helper, Boniface. Michael finds himself in conflict with many folk who prefer the ‘old ways’ and is openly accused by Mulonzya of politicising school lessons. Michael is a staunch friend of Janet Rowlandson, a volunteer working there for two years.

James Mulonzya is not only at loggerheads with Father Michael. He is against the efforts of John Mwangangi, who has returned from UK to his homeland to improve the lot of Migwani farmers. John has a wife, Lesley, who prefers the city life of Nairobi rather than that of the village. John’s problems are manifold: he becomes distant to his wife, he is too absorbed in the village project, and he cannot easily get on with his old father, Musyoka, with tragic consequences.

We meet Janet thirty years after the death of old Munyasa when she is a headmistress of a girls’ school in London and by chance she encounters someone from her past, a past that is not buried far beneath the surface because of what she witnessed. While in Kenya, she embarked on an affair with John Mwangangi, but it was destined to end when her two years were up… Here, in Janet’s school life we are treated to some wonderful one-liners – ‘… middle class families who could do without patronising advice about their diet from a politician with certainly questionable morals.’ And a truism: ‘… knowing a language was not the same as teaching it…’ The mannered meal with guests and her family is splendidly done, with telling flashbacks and surprises and a marvellous put-down for her husband, David.

Boniface showed much promise as a young man and was destined for the church. Unfortunately, he allowed hubris to dominate him and fell foul of his father who had scrimped and saved to further Boniface’s education. The family rift was merely the beginning, however, as Boniface becomes involved with Josephine. Later, Boniface and Josephine are beholden to Father Michael for giving blood that saved their child’s life. Fate decrees otherwise, however, as the child later becomes ill and Michael makes an abortive mad dash to the hospital.

Munyasya gained his education and experience from the King’s African Rifles. A respected officer in his day, he was ousted when Kenya gained independence. He was seen as a traitor to his people, more interested in adopting a European name and lifestyle. Single and without issue, he descended into a schizophrenic life where his dead stepfather talked to him and he mumbled back incomprehensively. He developed the habit of tying pieces of string to his thumb as reminders of things he’d never remember, then the string seemed to be a part of him, at times sloughed off and renewed like a snake’s skin. ‘It was a fool trying to untie another fool’s knot.’ This phrase is echoed in the title of Spires’s second novel, A Fool’s Knot, which examines in more detail the life and death of John Mwangangi. At this point we discover the real reason why Munyasya died under the wheels of Father Michael’s car.

Despite the events being trodden over by several people, there’s always something fresh to discover, a new insight into a character, a shocking revelation, and even though you think you know everything already, you read on, wanting to understand the individuals and their inner worlds, and still learn more.

The narrative is coloured by the sights and smells of a small town in Africa, the petty tribal disagreements and the long-lasting resentment of past ignominies under colonial rule. It is not a light read, but it is rewarding. It’s obvious that these characters lived with Spires for several years, he knows them so well, and by the end of the book, we do too. A memorable and quite remarkable book.

Wednesday 9 September 2009

Book of the film: Zulu

Well, sort of. The book is ZULU – WITH SOME GUTS BEHIND IT! By Sheldon Hall

The subtitle of this book is ‘The making of the epic movie”, which says what it means. Sheldon Hall has comprehensively accomplished just that, describing in fascinating detail the research for the original article by author John Prebble, the development of the screenplay, the creation of the film’s characters, the casting, finding the locations in South Africa, the actual filming and editing, the music, plus the final release and the reviews and criticism. Released in 1964, the film has remained popular for over forty years and this book goes a long way to explaining why.

The events in the film took place in January 1879 during the Anglo-Zulu War on the day following the British defeat at Isandhlwana, later filmed as Zulu Dawn. The small mission at Rorke’s Drift consisted of six hundred square yards of poorly defensible land and was manned by eight officers and ninety-seven other ranks with thirty-six sick and wounded men in the mission hospital. Moving against Rorke’s Drift was a force of four thousand Zulu warriors. Eleven Victoria Crosses were won in a single day in the battle of Rorke’s Drift. Reprinted for the first time is the entire article, Slaughter in the Sun, written by historical author John Prebble and published in the Lilliput magazine for 1958.

Inevitably, film producers and writers are criticised when they tamper with real-life historical characters. These critics tend to forget that the film isn’t a documentary but a dramatic representation and, in Hall’s words, ‘I believe it is not only defensible but necessary to reinvent real-life figures for their new role in a drama.’ If viewers of these films confuse the drama with actual history, then that’s not the fault of the producers. Several descendants of the soldiers at Rorke’s Drift were upset over the portrayal of their relatives in the film.

Hall quotes at length from contributors to the website and one in particular (Diana Blackwell) comments, ‘Despite its historical basis, Zulu is a work of art, not a documentary. It takes a few liberties with the facts, but always in the interest of strengthening the story.’ Diana points out that the film has drawn more attention to the battle than all the other sources combined and serious historical studies have resulted directly from the exposure given by the film. Much more is known about that conflict now than at the time when Prebble did his initial research.

Stanley Baker was co-producer and main star of the film. During the filming he and his wife made friends with Prince Buthelezi. Baker was awarded a knighthood in Wilson’s resignation honours and before receiving it from the Queen he contracted pneumonia in Malaga and died, aged forty-eight. His Zulu friend sent a wreath to ‘the finest white man he had ever met.’ Baker kept a secret cheque-book, discovered after his death, from which he gave money to out-of-work actors and broken-down boxers.

The book would have been interesting simply covering the making of the film, but it is immeasurably better because of snippets like the above scattered throughout.

Although Zulu is considered to be Michael Caine’s first film role, it wasn’t. But this was the movie that gave him prominent billing, even if his fee was only a mere £4,000 – a lot to a struggling actor in those days. What is quite striking is the generous encouragement and fostering of Caine – Jack Hawkins said he’s ‘the best thing in this film’ while Baker deprecates, saying the film didn’t make Caine a star, it only helped – Caine ‘made himself into a star.’ James Booth received mixed reviews about his part as the ne’er-do-well Private Hook. He enjoyed it immensely. Ironically, he appeared in the Newcastle upon Tyne Theatre playing Captain Hook in Peter Pan. At least he’d been promoted!

(The drawing is a sketch I made from a photo in 1964, when I was 16 - ye Gods, that's a long time ago...!)

One of the most memorable characters was Colour-Sergeant Bourne played by Nigel Green who was coincidentally born in South Africa. Some actors received mixed notices but Green was praised from every quarter. This part gained him recognition and more film roles. Subsequently, he appeared in two Michael Caine movies, The Ipcress File and Play Dirty. The voice-over narration was done by an old friend of Baker’s, Richard Burton, who refused to take a fee.

The location filming couldn’t take place at the original site of Rorke’s Drift since a modern school and monuments to the battle had been erected over the mission and the battlefield. Besides, from an aesthetic point of view, the scenery wasn’t that great. They eventually settled on Drakensberg mountain range about 160km from Rorke’s Drift.

Many real Zulus were employed as extras and stunt men. Chief (Then Prince) Buthelezi played the Zulu chief King Cetewayo. He went on to become Minister of Home Affairs in the new South Africa and was even appointed Acting President of the Republic by Nelson Mandela, who had previously been his political rival. He is particularly sad that so many people involved in the film ‘are no more.’

The biggest problem for the director was not arranging the fight scenes but actually getting the Zulus out of the shade – they didn’t care much for the sun. The working relationship between the white crew and the Zulus was good and memorable, despite the dark shadow of inhuman apartheid regime. My ship called in at Durban in the late 1960s and we were appalled at the way the blacks were treated. Indeed, Caine vowed never to return to South Africa while apartheid was still in force. Although hundreds of Zulus had worked on the film and appeared in it, because of apartheid they weren’t allowed to see it at all: Stanley Baker kept his promise, however, and arranged a secret special viewing for all those involved in the film.

The haunting film score by John Barry is covered in depth, too: he has written over 120 film scores and believes that music should be doing a very specific thing. He doesn’t want background music, he wants foreground music.

There were many special premieres throughout the country. At Glasgow five Scottish holders of the VC were accompanied by a guard of honour from HMS Zulu, a tribal class frigate due to be commissioned on the Clyde. In April 1967 I joined the ship’s company of HMS Zulu and we eventually sailed to Durban and visited Zululand and attended a tribal dance ceremony as guests of honour. (I left the ship in October 1969).

The film Zulu surpassed the previous highest grossing British release From Russia with Love. However, Bond came back to overtake that record with Goldfinger...

Zulu wasn’t glorying in warfare or jingoism or racism. It was simply a ‘straightforward celebration of valour, tenacity and honour among men’ from both sides. Many self-serving critics have tried to pillory the film-makers for not explaining the historical context or showing more from the Zulu viewpoint. They forget that the film was a drama about eleven men winning the Victoria Cross in one day.

There is a chapter about myths, gaffes and spoofs, even the Beyond Our Ken’s parody. There are appendices on the production schedule, the budget, the complete cast and crew listing, as well as a useful bibliography for further reading on the period and the Anglo-War of 1879 in particular. Some armies actually use the film as part of their training in leadership.

The book’s title is taken from a comment by Colour Sergeant Bourne near the end of the film, explaining their miraculous victory was not only due to the rifle but also the bayonet. ‘With some guts behind it, sir.’

The Zulu warcry is Bayete! - Thy will be done!

Friday 4 September 2009


Saddened to learn that Keith Waterhouse died today, aged 80. He’d been ‘unwell’ for some time, doubtless emulating his friend Jeffrey Bernard… He was one of my writing idols. Waterhouse came from humble beginnings in Leeds but had the gift of words laced with humour. He was a great advocate for protecting the apostrophe from Philistines, ignoramuses and lazy officialdom, long before Lynne Truss adopted his standard.

Many years ago, I used to buy the Daily Mail and the Daily Mirror. They gave me two politically biased views of the world where news was concerned, so I could more or less work out that reality was perhaps somewhere in between. But I liked the Mirror for two special reasons: it contained the strip cartoon ‘The Perishers’ and at the time a Keith Waterhouse column. Later, Waterhouse moved to the Mail.

He was a consummate puncturer of pomposity. I have many books by him, besides his most famous, Billy Liar (1959); he wrote a sequel, Billy Liar on the Moon (1975). My two favourites are Waterhouse at Large, being samples of his columns from the Mirror, the Times and the Observer, and English, Our English (and how to sing it). Anyone who appreciates the written word will find joy in these books. He was prolific and versatile. I have two of his autobiographies, City Lights and Streets Ahead. He loved playing with words but respected the English language. It doesn’t matter which of his books you pick up – whether on Travel, Lunch or Newspaper Style, you’ll enjoy them at several levels.

In his later years, his facial features seemed to fit what many of his pieces may have been considered to be: curmudgeonly; it's as if the word was invented solely for him... He was inventive, funny and generous of nature. A great wordsmith has gone, but his words linger on.

He was known to drink champagne every day – he didn’t drive at all. So, to toast his memory tonight I shall open a bottle of Cava (heresy of heresies, but it’s cheaper yet as good as many champagnes). Cheers, Keith.